Just when you think no other aspect of Beatles history could possibly be overlooked, a book comes along revealing a little-known corner of their story. A new tome, The Beatle Who Vanished by Jim Berkenstadt (otherwise known as the “Rock and Roll Detective”), examines the life of a bit player in the Beatles saga: Jimmie Nicol, the drummer who filled in for an ailing Ringo Starr during the first two weeks of their first world tour.
Nicol experienced something other musicians and fans could only dream about — being a Beatle, even a temporary one. But what happened after Nicol returned to England on June 15, 1964? Berkenstadt strives to answer this question — and provide the only written history of the veteran drummer — in this often fascinating book.
The Beatle Who Vanished begins by telling Nicol’s story, specifically how he rose through the ranks of jazz and rock drummers in London. Nicol’s musical versatility earned him a reputation as a solid, dependable drummer, and he began serving in a string of local bands. He played as part of Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys (Hicks was the brother of British rocker Tommy Steele), then moved on to Vince Eager and the Quiet Three. In 1964 he experienced his first success: becoming the drummer of the highly popular act George Fame and the Blue Flames.
Just as Nicol was about to start the new job, Beatles producer George Martin called. He and manager Brian Epstein had heard of Nicol’s prowess and dependability as a drummer, and after calling two other musicians, they settled on the generally unknown Nicol. Fame allowed Nicol to be “lent out” to the Beatles, on the condition that he would return to the band after Starr recovered.
The old saying “be careful what you wish for” rings true for the rest of the story. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play with the Beatles? Who wouldn’t want to experience the fame and adulation, even for a short time?
At first Nicol was overwhelmed by the mob scenes and screaming fans, but soon began to enjoy the touring. George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney treated him well, although it was apparent to everyone but Nicol that he was a hired hand, not a full member of the group. As they toured Denmark, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, Nicol had convinced himself that the group would realize that he was the superior drummer, and would ask him to take Starr’s place permanently. Of course this did not happen: Starr made a triumphant return to the tour, and Nicol was sent packing.
However, Nicol figured his brief “fifth Beatle” status would earn him fortune and fame, the ability to write his own ticket. Unfortunately, the exact opposite would happen.
The remainder of Berkenstadt’s book describes Nicol’s gradual downfall, trying to restart his music career in Sweden, Mexico, and back in England. He was frustrated at every turn, experiencing failure after failure: His brief membership in the Swedish rock band the Spotnicks would be the only success he would enjoy since his short tenure with the Beatles. Personal problems, two broken marriages, financial woes, and drug addiction followed, hindering his career.
Eventually he retired, concentrating on his growing construction business. He did appear at a Dutch Beatles convention in 1984, but after that the rumor spread that he had died. Is he still alive? Berkenstadt attempts to track down the reclusive man, with surprising results at the book’s end.
The Beatle Who Vanished is not without flaws — the proofreading could have been more thorough, and the author is overly fond of creating drama by using phrases such as “years ahead of their time” to describe Nicol and his various bands. He makes debatable comparisons between Nicol and drummers such as Iron Butterfly’s Ron Bushy, Starr, and even Pete Townshend. Berkenstadt also makes hard-to-prove arguments such as “Certainly Hicks’ moves were a precursor to Mick Jagger’s, who wouldn’t hit the stage for several more years.” Did Jagger really steal his moves from Hicks, or did both actually borrow steps from R&B performers? Claims such as those are opinion, at best.
Despite these issues, The Beatle Who Vanished serves as a fascinating read for hardcore fans. Nicol may be a footnote in Beatles history, but Berkenstadt’s research fleshes him out as a human being with his own musical background. The writer gives us an insider’s view of the hard life of a professional musician, and offers an unglamorous account of Beatlemania. If you’ve ever had dreams of being a “fifth Beatle,” Nicol’s story may give you pause.
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